Allowing a 35-17 lead slip away at home vs the hated BYU in 1991… losing 44-42 on the road vs a winless UNLV with the WAC championship on the line in 1996 … these are just two of the all-time defeats SDSU has endured in it’s 100 years of playing the beautiful and sometimes devastating game of football. Saturday night a new entry made it’s way onto that notorious list.
The Aztecs fell to their rival the Fresno State Bulldogs 32-28 in-front of an announced crowd of 37,107 at Valley Children’s Stadium. Though not all that entered the stadium gates stuck around to see it. Those that did witnessed a Halloween weekend horror for the Aztecs when they blew a 28-17 4th quarter lead with under 2 minutes left to play.
In order to get this crazy conclusion of a game it took multiple mistakes on both sides of the ball from both teams. This wasn’t a game in which Fresno was at their very best and it certainly wasn’t the Aztecs finest performance. But for a majority of the game it truly was SDSU’s most impressive output so far.
The loss left a stunned Aztecs sideline as the seconds ticked away to end both the game and perhaps their Mountain West Championship aspirations. With so many ups and downs in this rivalry game, what exactly did we learn from it all?
The Quarterback of the Now AND the Future
The start of the game had all the makings of a classic when reports were confirmed that QB1 Jake Haener would suite up and make the start for the Bulldogs. Haener, a preseason all Mountain West QB, hadn’t played since injuring his ankle early in the season. The Bulldogs performance suffered greatly without Haener, losing to UCONN one of the worst programs in all the FBS.
Things appeared to start well for Haener (34/45, 394 YDS, 3 TD 2 INT) as he guided the offense on the game’s opening drive for a field goal to get on the board first. After this initial drive the game shifted it’s focus to SDSU and the talents of QB Jalen Mayden (19/24, 291 YDS, 1 TD 1 INT).
Facing by far his toughest opponent yet, Mayden continued to display his QB skills as he masterfully operated Jeff Horton’s play calling. On his opening drive he picked up right where he left off from last week, as he sprinted to the end zone to put the Aztecs up 7-3.
From then on Fresno had to pay attention to Mayden’s athleticism as a runner. What followed was a series of beautiful touch passes out of the backfield to RB Kenan Christon—one resulting in the game’s second touchdown to put SDSU up 14-3.
For all the first half Mayden left no doubt that with him behind center, in shotgun and in the RPO scheme, he was fully able to grasp whichever formation or style the Aztecs wanted him to execute. His decision making improved from previous weeks as he found the correct receiver in each plays progressions. And his accuracy was off the charts as he was nearly perfect in completion attempts.
SDSU took a 21-10 lead into the locker room at halftime after this next touchdown run by Mayden. The offense was hitting on all cylinders for the first time this season.
Though only one touchdown would be scored the rest of the game by the Aztecs (more on that below) it is abundantly clear that Jalen Mayden is the QB the Aztecs need to build around for the future. With one more season at his disposal due to COVID, Coach Hoke needs to make it clear that Mayden is our man.
Never mind the physical attributes that make him a dual threat in this offense—Mayden’s ability to grow within the scheme that is still being installed week by week is truly impressive. With another off season to develop his skills under both Ryan Lindley and Jeff Horton’s leadership, Mayden can really have the kind of college career he envisioned when originally transferring to SDSU.
After the halftime was over, SDSU received the first possession of the 2nd half. Though they moved the ball well Jalen Mayden had the first of a few costly turnovers when he threw an interception intended to be thrown out of bounds. The pressure was in his face in the backfield and his mechanics got the best of him casually throwing off his back foot.
It truly was one of the first costly mistakes Jalen has demonstrated in his new QB capacity. The cost didn’t come out in the form of points, as the Aztecs returned the favor by intercepting a Haener pass in the end zone. But perhaps this was the beginning of the offense going much more conservative on the night.
Here is how the Aztecs 2nd half possessions went:
Fumbled Onside Kick
The fumbled punt, by usually sure-handed Jesse Matthews, immediately turned into 7 points for the Bulldogs. But when Fresno stopped SDSU on a failed 4th down run, there was just over 11 minutes left in the game. The Aztecs defense had been all over Haener for most of the evening but Fresno marched down into the red zone. Needing a score badly, Haener threw his 2nd interception in the end zone when Patrick McMorris picked him off.
The time was 6:09 left on the game clock.
That is when Brady Hoke then went into run out the clock mode to make Fresno burn their timeouts. But that is far too early to begin a conservative offensive approach. RB Kenan Christon on 1st down had a run up the middle for a loss of three. Then the same for a loss of two. It was 3rd and 15 and backed up inside their own 15 yard line. When backed deep in your own end zone THAT is the time to run the football and be conservative.
Instead the Aztecs dropped back to pass and the pass rush got to him stripping the ball and pouncing for yet another turnover. Once again Fresno failed to take advantage by turning it into points. The Aztecs Ced Barfield raced in to block a field goal attempt and surely the game was over then—right?
The previous week vs Nevada, the young O-Line was in the dog house for many unforced penalties that killed potential scoring drives. Before the end of the first half in this game, redshirt freshman right tackle Josh Simmons allowed his frustrations to get the best of him. He took a swing at the face mask of Bulldog DE Parales and the 15 yard penalty set the Aztecs out of field goal range. An immediate 5 yard false start penalty took it even further and Coach Hoke was having words with the young man on the way to the locker room.
As Chris Vannini shared on twitter, the win probability for SDSU had reached as high as 98.2%. The odds of losing in the way they did was a statistical rarity. Coach Hoke and the Aztecs just needed to run the ball, get a first down and get out of dodge with the W. But once again the Offensive line became the story.
On 2nd and 7 in what should’ve been a simple run out the clock play, the young right tackle fell to another false start bringing the situation to a 3rd and 12. The offense couldn’t convert on a pass and the Aztecs had to punt the ball away giving Haener yet another opportunity to go to work. This time with under 4 minutes left and with no timeouts.
Consider these next events as they unfolded to end the game:
Fresno State touchdown
Successful 2-point conversion
SDSU fumbles onside kick
Fresno State touchdown
SDSU throws an INT
Game over—But the nightmare would only just begin.
So who is responsible for this loss—the players or the coaches?
The victory now secures the Old Oil Can trophy stays in the Valley another season. It also puts Fresno State at 3-1 in Mountain West play as they now sit in the drivers seat for the winners of the Western division.
For San Diego they are back at 4-4 overall and 2-2 in Mountain West play needing to win out all the rest of their games and need Fresno to lose at least two more. A highly unlikely result now that Haener has returned.
SDSU also needs 2 more wins out of their last 4 contests to become bowl eligible and perhaps 3 to ensure they are actually selected for a bowl invitation.
With so much ground lost in such a shocking manner, many among Aztec Nation voiced their blame on social media and message boards. So that leads us to take a look at who should be held more responsible for the loss.
Sons of Montezuma pride ourselves on never biting our tongue when it comes to holding accountability. For every game lost, no matter which team or sport it is, the head coach should always take ultimate responsibility. Just like how players in every victory should rightfully get the praise. But in a loss like what we witnessed Saturday, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
While many in Aztec Nation may not agree with Coach Hoke’s decisions of running out the game clock (and we’ve detailed above when we disagreed with the moments) on an overall level this loss cannot entirely be placed at the feet of the staff.
No matter how you slice it—conservative offense & all, the Aztecs were in the upper hand position to win the game when it came down to the final possession. The players simply did not make the necessary plays to win.
In baseball a closer is called in from the bullpen because he has ice in his veins to finish the job. On this night, wether it was momentum, or overconfidence, or just a failure to stay disciplined, the team lacked that attitude in the most crucial moments.
All night the Kurt Mattix’s defense played brilliantly. They stunted, blitzed and got pressure on Haener to make him uncomfortable on their way to a season high 7 sacks and numerous hurries. But time after time the Aztecs through turnovers continued to give him opportunities to try again. While Fresno did their best effort to continually fail, the Aztecs were even more determined to give this game away. And you cannot give a QB of Haener’s caliber that many chances without paying the price.
Fall on the onside kick—stop the receiver in front of you—dont throw into high traffic to end the game. This one’s not all on Brady. This one was an entire team loss from top to bottom. Everyone had a finger print on it and everyone will have to live with this nightmare for quite some time.